Egypt Elections: Day One's Peaceful Proceedings A Pleasant Surprise
CAIRO -- At the end of a day that many feared could have easily spiraled into calamity, poll workers across Egypt sealed up ballot boxes with red wax and crossed their fingers that the nation's first attempt at democratic elections had gone as smoothly as it seemed.
The first day of the first stage of Egypt's parliamentary elections took place Monday in a handful of municipalities, including its two largest, Cairo and Alexandria. Reports of major incidents and outright violence were virtually nonexistent.
Instead, it was a day filled with the sort of unbridled jubilance that many had dreamed of back in February, when a massive uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square brought the end of 30 years of dictatorship by President Hosni Mubarak.
Despite a multitude of reasons to be cynical about the vote -- including the fact that the military regime ruling Egypt since Mubarak's fall has often seemed to trod a similarly autocratic path -- the thrill of self-determination appeared, at least for one day, to triumph.
"Freedom!" one man, near the front of a long line early in the morning, said with a wide grin, shaking his fist so vigorously that his entire body seemed to tremor.
"I feel great, I feel like a hero, like Superman," said Adel Moussa, 57, who said he had traveled nearly 300 miles to vote on Monday. "If things don't go exactly right, that's okay for me. It's all very new for us. But I finally feel like an Egyptian is supposed to feel."
A random assortment of self-reported turnouts from across Cairo and Alexandria were uniformly high -- 47 percent, 44 percent, a little above 50 percent.
Anecdotal evidence attested to a high level of participation as well: At a half-dozen polling stations visited or observed by The Huffington Post, large crowds of people waiting to vote had formed outside, most of them in orderly, single-file lines.
At the height of the day, waits to enter polling facilities -- before even waiting to actually vote -- stretched from an hour, at minimum, to up to five hours in some locations.
There were occasional incidents. In the northern Cairo region of Matariyah, outraged voters reportedly took the presiding judge hostage after being forced to wait nine hours to vote. Elsewhere, eye witnesses said a judge had simply grown frustrated with the boisterous crowd, locked the doors, and left.
And a large number of polling stations opened late -- some by as much as two hours -- owing to easily avoided problems: ballots that didn't show up, security ink that couldn't be found, workers who arrived late. In the middle of the day, election officials opted to keep the polls open an extra two hours to accommodate the morning's tardiness.
But even with those logistical stumbles, it quickly became evident that some of the most feared calamities -- widespread violence, voter coercion, poll-worker fraud -- were not going to take place, at least not systematically.
At a polling station in the mixed Christian and Muslim neighborhood of Shoubra, part of the reason for an hour and a half delay early on Monday in opening the station was that Egyptian poll workers and Army officers were not satisfied with the facilities for storing ballot boxes overnight.
The election commission decided on Friday to hold the vote over the course of two days, and hasty arrangements for securing the ballots overnight had been a leading cause of concern for international observers.
But by most accounts, the judges who oversaw each voting station lived up to their reputation for independence, handling the difficult task of managing a complicated balloting process with integrity.
In Shoubra, the judge in one voting room kept an aggressively keen eye on the proceedings. (He was so focused that he declined several attempts for an interview with HuffPost.)
When an observer in the room from the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared to inch too close to a voting table, the judge raced over and delivered a stern warning.
"You will not touch anything, you will not talk to anyone, you will not write on anything," he said, wagging a finger in the observer's face. "You can only watch."
Later, when the observer tried to take a photograph from his cellphone, the judge swatted him away.
As the polling stations closed at 9 p.m., numerous reports described judges as carefully sealing up the boxes with copious amounts of wax, even hot glue, before applying the sealants to any windows in the room.
The Muslim Brotherhood was likely another key factor in the order of the day. The Brotherhood, and its more extremist Salafist counterparts, have long seemed poised to do especially well in the vote. With the most loyal followings and the largest and most established political operations, the Brotherhood and the Salafist parties, especially Al Nour, had resisted efforts by other parties in recent weeks to slow down the pace of the elections.
Instead, the organization doubled down, offering extensive transportation assistance to voters and journalists alike, and sending teams of strongmen to critical polling stations -- an astonishing 40,000 of them, the organization announced late on Monday -- to help keep the peace.
In Rod el Farag, in Shoubra, FJP volunteers beat nearly every poll worker -- and all but a handful of voters -- to the polling station, swiftly climbing nearby trees to hang newly printed yellow banners with their party's chosen candidates on them. When poll workers later attempted to set up an official list of candidates and instructions on how to vote, they searched in vain for empty wall space, and ended up leaving the posters propped uneasily on three plastic chairs, off to the side.
Poll watchers and activists said throughout the day that the Brotherhood's efforts to "assist" voters in selecting the right candidates, by handing out pre-printed leaflets with candidates' names on them, was a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of a law banning campaigning at the polling stations. But nearly every campaign did this to some extent -- FJP was merely the most efficient -- and few voters seemed genuinely pressured by the process: In most cases, they glanced at the papers and dropped them on the ground.
The fact that many voters' preferred party was expected to fair well may have also contributed to the high turnout and smooth operations of the day.
While many of the secular and liberal candidates spoke of voting -- assuming they did not boycott the elections -- in terms of a civic duty, or national pride, the Islamists strode through the voting booths with swagger.
"I'm really happy I voted, and that it is the first time I know it's a real election," Hassan Abdel Fatah, a supporter of the Salafist Nour party, said as he left the voting booth in the conservative Muslim neighborhood of Sayyeda Zeynab.
"Really I am. But also I'll be happy if [the Nour party] does well, because I believe in them a lot, and I think they will bring a lot of changes to this country."